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No passion for politics

Q&A | An influential author and commentator, William Bennett turned down chances to run for national office

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

William Bennett, 68, was secretary of education in the Reagan administration and later served as "drug czar." He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin, is now a national radio talk show host, and has written or edited 20 books, including The Book of Virtues and The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood (Thomas Nelson, 2011). Here are edited excerpts of a November interview.

You've done a lot ... When you're young you can work hard. When you're old you can't sleep, so you have no choice.

Regarding sleep: For seven years you've been doing a 6-9 a.m. radio show-what time do you get up? About 3, 3:30. If I fall asleep during my own remarks, don't judge the merits of them on that fact.

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Any generalizations you can make on the mood of the country, or at least your callers, based on those seven years? Anxious, worried, depressed, very concerned about their future, more concerned about the future of their children and their grandchildren.

The name of your show, "Morning in America," refers to both the time of day and to President Reagan, who spoke optimistically about this country. Do you think it's still morning in America? Don't ever count this country out. I think the antibodies are kicking in. Look at the rise of the Tea Party and the 2010 elections. We are seeing a call, sometimes in code, sometimes unclear, sometimes diffused, but a call for first principles. People have a sense that we need to go back to the roots. If we go back to the Founders, then I'm very encouraged. But we shall see.

People in the 1990s talked about you running for president. You never did. Why? Personal disqualifications, and I never had the passion for it. I was asked by Bob Dole if I would be his running mate. We were in California. He asked me to ride in the car with him back to the hotel. He said, "Who do you think I should have for vice president?" I said, "Jack Kemp." He said "No, not that guy. That guy's crazy." [Kemp was the eventual choice.] I said, "Who are you thinking of?" He said, "How about you?" I said, "Me? Why me?" He said, "Academic, Eastern, Catholic, intellectual." I said, "I'm so moved. It's so personal." A marriage proposal, you know? Category, category, category. ... Fine, it's politics. I thought about it. I just didn't have the heart for it.

Any interest four years later? George W. Bush said, "How about you?" I said, "No, I can't do it." He said, "Why?" I said, "Because I wrote The Book of Virtues." He said, "That's a great thing." I said, "Not if you've lived as big and as fully as I have." Fraternity life, gambling, hanging out, I didn't get married until I was 37. There was a country music song called "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places." I was doing some of that. Nothing illegal, nothing felonious. You could get away with it if you haven't written The Book of Virtues. But it set a standard that I never would have been able to meet.

Putting virtue aside for the moment, would you have wanted to run? I was sitting once with Phil Gramm when he was running against Dole for the Republican nomination. I said, "How are you feeling about this race?" He said, "I have 150 receptions in the next 30 days and I can't wait to get to them." Well, I would rather have my face sewn to the floor than go to 150 receptions in 30 days. Some guy who's a big donor comes up to you and says, "Most people think 2+2=4. I think it equals 5. What do you think?" You gotta say, "That's an interesting proposition." You can't say, "You're an idiot." So, I'm not made for this. My wife will tell you I get to a party and say, "Let's go, let's go, let's go."

Talk radio is more fun? I love what I do. People ask, "Why'd you get a Ph.D. in philosophy?" Because I want to be a talk show host. I want to be on radio. I can't wait to get up at 3:30 in the morning. It's a little weird.

Do you ever tell callers, "You're an idiot"? They're our guests. We actually listen to them. Jeremy Bentham said the way to put people at ease is to make them feel comfortable. The best way to make them feel comfortable is to appear as if you liked them. The best way to appear as if you liked them is actually to like them. So we listen to what our callers have to say. We don't yell.

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